HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Gov. Tom Wolf's administration advanced plans Friday to maintain federal health insurance subsidies for nearly 400,000 Pennsylvanians ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could wipe out the aid to insurance buyers in some states.
The Democrat wrote to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to declare his administration's intent to take over operation of the insurance marketplace in 2016. The federal government currently operates the marketplace, which is a prominent feature of the 2010 federal health care law designed to extend insurance coverage to 35 million Americans.
"In order to protect 382,000 Pennsylvanians from potentially losing subsidies that help them afford health care coverage, I have written to the federal government outlining a contingency plan to set up a state-based marketplace to ensure no one loses their health coverage," Wolf said in a statement released by his office.
Wolf's administration said the letter is not binding, but it ensures the option is available next year in case the high court's ruling is adverse. In any case, approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature would be required for any money needed to run an exchange and potentially for the legal authority, legislative officials said.
"We are concerned about the cost. What are the costs involved and how does (Wolf) propose paying if there are costs involved?" said Steve Miskin, a House GOP spokesman.
The move comes as a number of states are reconsidering the exchanges they run amid financial or operational difficulties. A Health and Human Services Department spokesman said he did not immediately know whether Pennsylvania is the first or only state to take such a step as a result of the Supreme Court case.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit before the Supreme Court say the Obama administration is unlawfully providing subsidies to people buying health insurance in Pennsylvania and the 36 other states using healthcare.gov, the online gateway to the federally run insurance marketplace.
They say the law's wording limits those subsidies to people purchasing policies on the 13 state-run insurance exchanges.
The court is expected to rule by late June.
The federal government said in March that about 473,000 Pennsylvanians had enrolled in insurance plans for 2015 sold through the marketplace. Of those, about four in five — 382,000 — qualified for a tax credit to help cover the cost of monthly premiums, the Wolf administration said, citing federal figures. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated last November that there could be 736,000 Pennsylvanians enrolled in subsidized marketplace plans in 2016, if the court does not void the subsidies.
The U.S. Census estimated last fall that 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, or one in 10, did not have health insurance in 2013. Since Jan. 1, about 250,000 more Pennsylvanians have enrolled in an expansion of Medicaid's income guidelines under the federal health care law, on top of those who bought a marketplace insurance plan.